November 4th, 2009 | 3:10 pm

The Nature Conservancy: Nuclear Power has a Small Footprint

John Wheeler of This Week in Nuclear, in his an excellent post up on The Energy Collective, pointed us to a recent study from the Nature Conservancy on the “Land Use Intensity” of nuclear energy versus other forms of energy.  The study, “Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency,” looks at the impact of various energy-generation methods on natural habitats (measured in square kilometers per terawatt-hour) and comes to the conclusion that aside from increasing efficiency, nuclear power has the smallest land-use footprint of all forms of energy generation – including green technologies like wind, geothermal, and solar!

land-use-chart

As you can see from the chart, it only takes 2.4 square kilometers of land to produce one terawatt-hour of energy in a nuclear reactor – just one-third of the impact of the next most efficient form of generation, geothermal, and just one-sixth the impact of solar thermal power.

Why is this important?  As climate change becomes a reality, preserving natural habitats – the Nature Conservancy’s mission – will become more and more crucial.  The energy we generate in the future needs to not only have a low-impact with regards to carbon emissions and pollutants, but also be efficient in terms of land use.  Just as “suburban sprawl” can gobble up natural and wilderness habitats that had previously supported diverse ecosystems, so too can “energy sprawl.”

The Nature Conservancy is concerned that as our energy appetite increases and we become more and more concerned about carbon emissions, we’ll go to methods of power generation that require the destruction of natural habitats for things like farming corn or soy for biofuels.  Nuclear power, they say, has the least amount of land-use impact of all forms of power generation.  Nothing can substitute for more efficiency, obviously. It’s clear from the study that efficiency gains (including, we might add, smart grid technology) would result in net decreases in land use.  But if we’re going to build more power plants, nuclear power will use the least amount of land.

This, combined with the NEI study we previously highlighted showing that nuclear energy is just as carbon-efficient as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power, makes it even clearer: the world’s green energy future must involve nuclear power.  Safe, reliable, clean, CO2-free nuclear power must be a crucial component of any carbon-reduction plan.